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‘It’s been a real luxury to put in the hard work to make Titanic Quarter happen’

Published on 23 January 2024

He sums up its work as bringing “step changes” to Northern Ireland, such as the emergence of a new film and TV industry in the 2000s after Harland & Wolff’s old Paint Hall was transformed into Titanic Studios.

It's among the milestones for Titanic Quarter witnessed by James Eyre since he joined Titanic Quarter Ltd, the company behind the massive seafront development, as a surveyor in 2006.

James, who studied estate management at UIster University, was last week named its new chief executive – the first at the company since a restructuring in 2015.

Titanic Quarter Ltd is the private company which runs the massive Titanic Quarter estate, on 185 acres of former shipbuilding land. It's owned by two prominent shareholders, Dublin-based Harcourt Developments, itself owned by the Doherty family, and businessman Dermot Desmond.

As new CEO, James exudes enthusiasm for his work, and rhymes off the developments added since he joined – The Gateway Offices, occupied by Citigroup, followed by apartments at the Arc development, Premier Inn, the Public Records Office, Belfast Met, Titanic Studios, and Channel Commercial Park, where Amazon has a warehouse.

One of the most famous additions has been the Titanic Belfast visitor attraction. “Titanic Belfast meant a huge step change for NI from a tourism point of view, with a dividend to the visitor and tourism economy, then the large-scale version of the film and TV industry started in Titanic Quarter about 14 years ago – and now look at how important that industry now is for NI’s economic development.”

He says it’s been a “real luxury” to put in the hard work, watch things happen and see the process pay dividends for the city.

A dramatic addition will be the completed Loft Lines residential development of 778 build to rent apartments. And British developer JMK has started work on a 228-bed hotel near Titanic Belfast at Hamilton Dock. When complete, it will be an Aloft Hotel and Residence Inn Aparthotel. Office block Olympic House was completed in 2022.

Work started on Loft Lines last year by NI developer Lacuna Developments, with Welsh company Watkin Jones - a pairing which has been behind student accommodation blocks elsewhere in the city.

Its 778 homes will help Titanic Quarter towards its target of having another 2,645 people living in the district. There are already 1,000 living in the Arc apartments development.

The 2,645 doesn't include the students who will be housed at a Titanic Quarter student village in another Lacuna and Watkin Jones joint effort. They're holding a pre-application community consultation before they submit a major planning application to Belfast City Council for a site which would house up to 1,200 students.

Those projects are just a part of what the company is working on, James says. “Projects take a long time, so we’re always working on a lot in the background.”

He sees it as all part of process of creating high-quality accommodation for people through different stages of their lives, from their student lives to working lives.

“There are really successful companies in the city centre which are growing, and need people, and those people need places to live.

“It's about the whole attractiveness and how you build a city economically as well. Residential and economic growth are linked with one another. As you do both, you create a vibrancy which is not a 9 to 5 vibrancy but 24 hour. Crime rates go down because everything’s visible all the time. The positivity self-perpetuates through all the different things you do.

“The fact that you’ve got residential, you have people coming and going, and there’s a level of animation. It doesn't mean we’ll be building large detached houses because it’s an urban environment but we already have a large number of families living in the Arc.”

He believes Titanic Quarter is a very liveable environment and cites things to do, like walking through the public realm at The Arc, having a beer at Titanic Hotel or Premier Inn, using cafes at The Arc and the cinema or restaurants at the Odyssey. Its walkways and public realm areas are also a big attraction to the public for recreation, with events such as the Maritime Festival pulling in crowds.

James, who is from Londonderry and now lives in Roughfort with his wife and three sons, is passionate about property and placemaking. Yet there was nothing in particular in his background to foster that interest. His parents, Shelagh-Mary and David, were consultant psychiatrists.

The Eyre family has a passion for sailing, and James is principal of the Lough Swilly Yacht Club Sailing School. He's competed at club level and in several Irish and British championships in the sport.

He’s thrived in a waterside property development company, and passionately defends its projects.

As building work started on Loft Lines project last year, it was highlighted that the development, 17 storeys at full height, will obscure views of Titanic Belfast and the Harland & Wolff cranes. He thinks criticism is unwarranted.

“We took it through a lot of master-planning in the mid-2000s, we've been through a full outline planning consent for the site with Titanic Belfast and what you see with Loft Lines and Titanic Belfast and Hamilton Dock hotel is the outworking of a master plan… we’ve been on a very open journey.

"This is not ad hoc, it’s planned. If you look through we’ve been very transparent with the stuff in a very public way the whole through so I didn’t think the commentary did it justice. It forgot about a lot of the ground work, history and the basis of what we’re doing. We’ve been very diligent and professional about how we’ve planned it and it’s about creating an overall place.”

Loft Lines will include 81 units for Housing Executive tenants and another 70 to be let at ‘affordable rent’.

There's plenty to be positive about but one plan which isn’t happening is an aquarium, which was announced for Titanic Quarter in 2019. “It’s paused. It was a third party developer working on it, REEF LIVE. Covid has been really hard on different projects and their funding but it's something I'd like to see come to fruition. Projects are really difficult to deliver and sometimes they take longer... There’s no route to seeing it on site at the moment but let’s see where the journey ends up.”

And he's always reflective about the scope for making a contribution to NI. Out of about 120 people in his year at Londonderry College, he thinks 100 left to study outside NI.

“I love Belfast, I love Northern Ireland. If we can do our bit right and lead and make things happen and work in partnership with everyone, you can move things on and get things done. I guess that's what I love."

Source: Belfast Telegraph (link opens in new window)